Steve MacManus was my mentor when I was learning how to edit comics in the early 90s, so interviewing him about the history of 2000 AD for THRILL-POWER OVERLOAD was a bit like asking your dad for his war stories about dating. Nevertheless, Steve was the glue that held the Galaxy's Greatest Comic together for much of its first ten years, so his memories about that period were crucial for the book. Here's another chunky excerpt from our interview transcript...
Why was the Cursed Earth immediately followed with Judge Cal epic?
I guess saw the Cursed Earth running in the comic and realised he could write his own epic. By that time the one-offs were such hard work, but an epic gives you room to play in. There was so much material to play with, it was wonderful. The storytelling. There was a three-parter between Cursed Earth and Judge Cal, which sets up the epic. John had written Robot Wars and it had been really successful. It hadn’t really been done before. It was always single stories. For the lead character to have long adventures demanded the readers be loyal. He probably decided the readers were old enough to take longer stories.
1979 – Angel? Rick Random? Disaster 1990 (sequel to Invasion)? Why? Was there stuff in the drawer you had to run out?
Disaster 1990 – I think that was Prog 119, we had a relaunch. Quality goes up with 86, then up again with 100. 119 was the next relaunch. Sanders said I want this to be an adventure comic, not a science fiction comic. I was still quite young then so I tugged my forelock. 119 was a weak run because it had Disaster 1990, Project Overkill – so the quality dipped down a bit, it lost was it was good at – the future element. The comic lost its way a little but the readers hung in there.
Prog 110 – switch to litho printing? How? Why? Stopped at 127 – why?
The production director rang up and said you’re switching to a different printer. The benefit is you’ll get litho printing. But it was only because they needed to give that printer some work. He did say at the time it would only be for a limited time. But suddenly we could do bleeds, full colour artwork. It was purely somebody filling a gap somewhere and we got lucky.
Prog 119 – 1st ABC Warriors – created especially for 2000 AD?
It was created for 2000 AD because Kevin was leaving. He had been designing these great robots. His output couldn’t keep up with the weekly schedule, so we brought in other artists – Brendan McCarthy, Brett Ewins. But that was okay because Pat wrote it in an episodic format, two-part stories, he was clever.
Prog 127 – merger with Tornade – pluses? Minuses? Blackhawk, Wolfie Smith, Captain Klep – hardly the equal of Starlord’s legacy…
No, no. We had to take something from Tornado. We took Blackhawk and Kelvin and Alan respun that. Wolfie Smith kind of fitted in, the ESP angle. Captain Klep was okay as a Bonjo-style one-page gag strip, but then it got a different writer and a different artist and it was awful.
Stainless Steel Rat adaptation – how did that happen?
That was down to Kelvin. I think he got in touch with Harry Harrison and it came off. Kelvin wrote the scripts and did a great job on that, because he did know how to push buttons. Carlos as artist – you couldn’t go wrong. It was nice – a bit wordy, but it was nice…
Judge Death debuts in 149, along with Cass – impact?
Massive, huge. I think that first story – it was over and done with in three weeks. But Brian had spent ages drawing it. There was a massive build-up to it in terms of time and preparation. Three weeks actually equated to 15 pages – it took Brian months to do. When the pages came in they would be marvelled at – the whole office would come to a standstill. Then they would be put on the incoming artwork shelf to wait for the next episode and life would return to normal.
It was only when it was ready to go to press, when it had been lettered, that we began to see how powerful it was. When you could see the script and art come together, it became evident how well Brian told the story. He always put the story first, but also managed to get some great pictures in there.
[MacManus has a cameo as a corpse – cause of death: Terminal Brainstorm.] It was a kind reference to me chasing Brian for artwork. It’s about the editor goading Brian by phone. He envisaged the editor dying before it ever saw print.
Judge Child saga – another high point in early Dredd? Angels, Hershey?
Smashing story. It was a collection of two-parters, mainly. That was a recognition that several artists would have to work on the strip. It was written in chapters so there’d be no awful moments where it would have to change artist in the middle of a sequence. [Lesson learned from ABC Warriors?] Lessons were being learned all the time and that was one of them. The writers wanted to have their scripts fit the artist. We knew few artists could produce six pages a week, every week, so you learned to schedule ahead – an early example of project management, as it’s now known! We just figured it out.
Five week strike in May-June 1980 – recollections?
One strike was about free coffee, the other was about the reading allowance. I’m guessing the Halo era strike [in 1984] was about the reading allowance. The free coffee strike was a bit silly. For the later strike, I remember the NUJ coming down and asking for pages they could hide, so the comic couldn’t go to press. We proffered them up. We found out later they were stuffing them in the ventilation shafts…
That’s right. Robin Smith came up with the title. We did a very nice dummy for that. It was based on a European model, speaking to an older audience. The cover was a picture of Sláine that Mike drew. I think it later turned up in an annual. That caused it’s own problems. Slaine was created visually by Angie Mills, Pat’s wife. Both Pat and Angie took huge offence that the cover of Zarjaz featuring Slaine had been done by an artist other than Angie, as she had created the character’s look. Massive offence.
That caused a lot of ill feeling which we, as the editorial team, hadn’t meant to engender. We were just doing a dummy. We just thought Mike would be a better cover artist. I do remember Pat ringing me and absolutely furious. In the background I could hear Angie sobbing. They were really, really upset. We hadn’t meant to cause this offence at all.
Slaine was created for 2000 AD (not for Zarjaz). Because Zarjaz was European, I think we felt having a barbarian on the cover would work best.
Ezquerra as Slaine according to May 81 memo in make-up book…
Wow. Well, Angie was always going to be the visual creator of Slaine, there was no doubt about that. Pat always knew Angie couldn’t produce six pages a week. He wanted her to do what Carlos did for Dredd, create a template and then choose another artist to take it forward. We must have thought about Ezquerra but decided against that. Belardinelli took over form Angie.
That first episode took Angie months and months. It may well have taken her a year. It went through quite a process. Robin Smith was art editor. He wasn’t too sure about Angie as an artist for 2000 AD. She had to do pencils and submit them. They were sent back to be redone. Then the inks and they had to go back. She was put through the mill a bit, but she hung on in there. But it was a really interesting first episode. All credit to her she stuck with. Then, at the last, she discovers the character is appearing on the cover of a dummy but not drawn by her – that must have been the last straw.
Alan Grant leaves circa Prog 174. Enter Richard 'Burt' Burton…
He joined around the middle of 1980. He later left to do Big K and Simon Geller joined. When Simon left, Richard came back. Simon left in the Summer of ’86, I think… Simon subbed Halo Jones Book Two [end of 84]. Richard was with us on Skizz . Simon and Robin did all that Madness stuff together, the Mutants in Mega-City One.
Nemesis returns in Killer Watt…
I remember Mike McMahon seeing the early episodes and saying he’d like to do stuff like that. He put down a marker, indicating he wanted to come off Dredd. Killer Watts was Kevin and Pat.
Mean Arena’s deadline problems…
That’s the story where they play sport in the street. Quite a nice idea by Tom Tully. Apparently, it’s something they do in Holland – play street sport. He said why don’t we do this, but project into the future a few years? It wasn’t a bad idea, but no-one wanted to draw it! Steve [Dillon] was our lifesaver. He must have done quite a bit of design work on that, he made it look nice and moody. Mean Arena was not unlike computer games about street fighting. The main artist was John Richardson. It was one of those where you think nice idea, but it didn’t quite happen.
Meltdown Man – very popular at the time?
A planet of animals, echoes of Planet of the Apes. One thing Belardinelli was good at was animals. He could draw brilliant tigers and others, with a bit of human form. Of course, the human hero was a bit of a weed. Just as Dan Dare and Slaine were weeds when Belardinelli drew them. The guy could never draw human heroes to save his life, but his animals were great.
It was an unusual story. It was very popular with younger readers who were joining the comic. They might have found the other strips a bit full-on to begin with. Meltdown Man was a nice, gentle introduction to the comic. On its own, it was far better than any of the other comics they could buy. It was intriguing. Who was this bloke who never melted? We used to get letters asking when’s he going to melt? Written by Alan Hebden, who knew how to draw a story on. There was never any padding in his scripts at all. He had the whole thing worked out in advance.
The reason it was 52 episodes was it began to get massive ratings. It was a bit like D-Day Dawson in Battle. If the artist could keep up the pace and the writer could keep producing the scripts, then keep going. It was pushing a button and everyone was happy with that. You opened up the comic and thought this looks interesting!
Return to Armageddon?
Written by Malcolm Shaw. Redondo artwork? Malcolm was an excellent writer for girls’ comics, he did a lot of Misty stuff – creepy horror for girls. Transferred across to 2000, it didn’t work, pitched just slightly off. The artwork didn’t help. It’s a silly title, Return to Armageddon. If you’re going to have a title, personalise – be it Cerebus the Aardvark or Judge Dredd, make it obvious what you’re talking about.
First appearance of Marlon 'Chopper' Shakespeare in 206/207…
Drawn by Ron Smith. That was fun. The opening spread of a wall covered in graffiti. That wall was drawn by Robin Smith. He redrew it. There were comments in the script about what should be on the wall and we added some others. Some of the graffiti was in colour lettering. That was done by Tom Frame, who lettered the strip and coloured the spreads.
[Weird hobbies of Marlon’s parents] Marlon’s dad used to head eggs into baskets. I always felt the Judge Dredd movie should have started with a pan down into the city. You would hear this strange noise and wonder what it was. You’d get to this window and see it was someone heading eggs into a basket. That would have summed up the quirkiness of life in Mega-City One without using any words. I think it was in The Blockers where Mum knitted books.
Portrait of a Mutant…
John always knew the origin of Strontium Dog when he was writing it. When Alan joined him, they took those notes and turned it into a script. Alan is credited with it but I think they wrote it together. It was a classic story. What was good about it was the Britishness, the character names like Frinton Fuzz. Frinton was a seaside resort close to the farmhouse where they used to live. Later on Alan wanted Durham Red to be Chelsea Blue. I think the Britishness of it scored massively with the readers, as did Mean Arena – that was set in English towns. It’s heart was in the right place. Portrait of a Mutant speaks for itself – go read it!